Recommended Viewing Situation:
With the lights dimmed, your glass full of red wine and a box of tissues within easy reach of your club chair with accompanying footstool.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Format: Leonard Cohen documentary footage.
Director: Tony Palmer.
Writers: Tony Palmer.
Cinematographer: Leonard Cohen documentary footage.
“Any system you contrive without us will be brought down.” -Leonard Cohen
‘Bird on a Wire,’ Tony Palmer’s documentary about singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen’s tour of 1972, opens with the mellow musician himself, reciting his own poetry. Taken from his poem ‘Any System’ and reflective of his (and others’) growing unrest at the false realities presented to people by governments the world over at the time, immediately you get the sense that this was a deeply philosophical man with an intelligent interest in politics.
The action then moves to a concert in the closing days of the tour, whereby Cohen is visibly distressed at the aggression shown by security towards his fans, for whom his affection is clearly shown throughout the film. Portrayed by Palmer as a man with great humility – during an interview he even refers to ‘the limits on my talent’ – his desire to reach out to his fellow humans is both moving and inspiring.
“I love it when you call out!” he says to his audience, before revealing his fantasy that he will meet his love in this manner. And there was no shortage of offers, for this humble man with his haunting songs, as the post-concert footage of ladies queueing up backstage to meet him, testifies.
But his need to reach out extends to human beings in general; with the war in Vietnam lingering over the world like a threatening cloud of Communism, it is no wonder that such a sensitive, spiritual and talented man found his musings influenced by brutalities inflicted on humans by humans. Some of the war footage is harrowing, but it acts as a backdrop to show the context of much of Cohen’s creativity. His subject matter spans eons of topics, from lovely ladies to disenchantment, but to summarise, it is about being human. However, despite this vast communication of his reflections on life, he tells one interviewer who is struggling to elicit opinions from the man himself, that he would “prefer not to speak at all”.
For the die-hard fans, the film is a beautiful, ambling vehicle for his soft music so typically tinged with melancholy. It is, in many ways, a regular ‘on-the-road’ documentary with its highs and lows of a band on tour. But it is also a fitting obituary. Palmer covers all bases when he shows us Cohen the writer, the thinker, the spiritualist, but also the man with a dry sense of humour and enough glints in his eye for every pretty lady who seeks him out at the stage door after a gig. I wish I had watched this in his lifetime, but I am thankful to have had this glimpse of the man behind the unusual lyrics and melodies of classics such as ‘Susanne’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’. So long, Leonard.